Excitement mixed with a familiar sense of contentment wells up inside me as we accelerate to the summit of the final rise on the South African side and catch our first glimpse of the Limpopo River Valley. Miles and miles of spectacular Africa lie before us; as far as the eye can see. It is good to be back.
Botswana – and in particular a special corner of modern day Bechuanaland known as the Northern Tuli Game Reserve or Mashatu – is as much a part of my family’s culture as curry and rice and church on Sundays.
It is not just the vastness of this untarnished wilderness that makes this place so unique or indeed the exceptional game viewing; huge numbers of birds and beasts inhabiting a wide range of ecosystems. My experience of Botswana is that apart from its exceptional beauty it is also a fascinating nation of enormous character; a place from which we can learn a tremendous amount.
As we cross the border and begin our drive to our camp my mind drifts off and I develop what is commonly referred to as the Mashatu stare. This is not a state of mental inertia; quite the opposite. It is a state in which one can properly ponder lofty matters; the meaning of life; the state of the nation; whether or not the Proteas will ever win a world cup.
And as our 4 x 4 rocks us purposefully along dirt paths I have the first of several such ‘ponderations’ of our trip; my first lesson from Botswana if you like.
Why do we always hear that South Africa is going the way of Zimbabwe? Botswana – a thriving, healthy, peaceful democracy in the heart of Southern Africa – is as much a neighbor as Zim and yet I am willing to bet every one of the few sheckles I have that you have never heard anyone say; “South Africa is going the way of Botswana”. Why not? We do not even will it to go the way of Botswana. Why is it so obvious that we will emulate one neighbor and not the other? Is there something rotten in our drinking water that comes down from Zimbabwe? You certainly never hear this kind of negativity in Botswana. Straight up I determine to counter every; “we are going the way of Zimbabwe” with; “well that is not correct at all – we are in fact going the way of Botswana!”
We arrive at our camp and are greeted by Hilda – the warm and welcoming wife of the camp manager Monty. Hilda and Monty are Batswana. Now this might not seem significant but this interaction provides me with my second lesson from Botswana; a lesson we must urgently appropriate here in South Africa as we progress into the next stages of democratic maturity.
Many South African hospitality or service-oriented operations; game lodges, hotels, B&B’s and restaurants and indeed a wide range of other commercial enterprises including farms and mines are still owned or managed by whites whilst the blacks do all the work; wait on tables, make beds and dig holes. A smattering of exceptions exist however the reality is that genuine transformation is still theoretical. In Botswana employment equity is a lifestyle not a policy – and it works; these people are world class hospitality practitioners delivering a world class experience.
Of course Monty and Hilda – along with other senior camp staff members who are all Batswana – join us for our meals. And this is my next learning; there is an ease to the way in which people of different cultures interact in Botswana. Admittedly they were a British protectorate rather than a full-blown colony with all that that entailed. Perhaps this is why Batswana feel little if any sense of inferiority. The reality is that here in South Africa we have a mountain to climb in this regard. We need to spend time together – different races – learning to understand and honour one another’s cultures; one another’s differences. Only quality time together – eating food, talking, living life together – will enable us to become comfortable in one another’s space.
Fate has undoubtedly contributed to the present health of Botswana and our lands are vastly different from a historical perspective. But perhaps one more insight Botswana gives us is in terms of levels of dignity of her people in themselves and towards others. Although tiny in comparison to South Africa, it is a proud nation; one that respects the rule of law; one that gives high value to education and discipline. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of the first President of Botswana Sir Seretse Khama.
Of course Botswana – like all countries – has its problems, the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world not least of them. But I leave the country with the conviction that they are getting more right than wrong and that we should stop prophesying doom related to Zimbabwe and begin actively aspiring to our other close neighbor.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.